The dilemma of growing sugarcane in KwaZulu-Natal

For 28 years, six days a week, Mr. Vizinto* has worked as a sugarcane cutter. Equipped with a cane knife, sharpener and a bottle of maheu to quench his thirst, he works from dawn to dusk to meet his daily target of 130-160 rows.“If you don’t finish your target, they cut your pay,” Vizinto explains. “So we don’t take breaks, we work even when we’re sick, we work until we complete the target.” With the smoke of burnt cane still lingering in the air, he grabs four stalks with his bare hands, bends the cane and chops.

Mr. Vizinto is among the approximately 77,000 agricultural workers employed in South Africa’s sugar industry. With 12 of the 14 sugar mills located in province of KwaZulu-Natal, this is the epicenter of sugar production. Because cane needs to be processed within 24 hours of harvesting, mills are located close to plantations. Along the coast, from the border with Mozambique down to the Eastern Cape, sugarcane plantations cluster around milling towns. Once processed, the cane is sent to the refinery in Durban, then packaged and shipped via the port terminal.

Across Southern Africa, mechanization has reduced the need for farmworkers and facilitated their casualization. KwaZulu-Natal’s hilly topography, combined with the relatively long field period for cane, means that sugar continues to employ significant numbers of permanent agricultural workers. In addition to direct employment, the South African Sugar Association (SASA) estimates that approximately one million South Africans depend on the sugar industry for a living. In a country with skyrocketing unemployment rates, cane work is an important source of income, particularly for rural households.

A Fizzling Industry?

Severe drought has decreased sugarcane output in recent years. Alan Govinsamy is the provincial KwaZulu-Natal orrganizer for the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU). A former shop steward at UCL’s Dalton sugar mill, Govinsamy is now responsible for organizing, among other sectors, cane workers. “Look at the cane,” he says, pointing to the dry stalks. “It doesn’t look good. Growing seasons are getting shorter and shorter, yields smaller and smaller. One day there will be no more cane.” Cane shortages have already forced the closure of Illovo’s Umzimkulu mill for the 2011/12 season.

Land under cane cultivation has also shrunk. Urban sprawl, competing land uses and the land reform process have put pressure on sugar production. According David Wayne, Executive Director of the South African Cane Grower’s Association (Canegrowers) approximately 50 per cent of the area currently under sugarcane cultivation is subject to a land claim. The slow pace of land reform in the post-apartheid period has fueled frustration and anxiety among both landowners and claimants, he says, undermines investor confidence. Once claims are settled, adds Ali Mdluli, FAWU National Sugar Sector, it is often “a battle to get people [claimants] to grow cane.”

Publicly, the sugar industry supports land reform and Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE). Under pressure from the state, Illovo recently sold almost half of its estates to small, primarily black, farmers. However, critics argue that the sale of large estates to small growers under the guise of BBBEE, is attempt outsource risk, escape regulatory scrutiny and avoid responsibility for farmworkers’ working and living conditions.

The Gledhow Mill and Refinery located in Stanger was the first sugar company to be bought out by a B-BBEE firm. Originally owned by Illovo, it sources sugarcane from emerging farmers. Canegrowers estimates that there are currently 376 emerging sugarcane farmers. In addition, there are 33,700 small-scale growers who produce 8.4 per cent of the total crop. Gledhow encourages growers to form cooperatives or trusts in order to ensure sustainability, and access financial and technical assistance. Despite political support, on average only 12 per cent of registered cooperatives survive in South Africa. Gledhow appoints contractors to plant, apply fertilizers or pesticides, and harvest cane for smallholders. Growers, many of whom operate at very narrow profit margins, must wait until the end of the season to be paid.

Despite a guaranteed market, the number of small-scale growers has declined in recent years. Annually, less that 50 per cent of registered small growers deliver cane. Wayne identifies a number of reasons for this decline. Too small to benefit from economies of scale, small-scale growers rely on a poorly organized and extremely expensive network of contractors. Even if they are successful, small growers generally cultivate communal land, under the traditional authority. While land titles in communal areas are relatively secure, suggests Wayne, the inability to buy and sell land means that successful farmers cannot expand into their neighbor’s field.

Labor shortages are a further obstacle for cane growers. Ms. Bevile became a cane worker after her husband passed away. “My husband passed away and I had six children to look after. I eventually found a job as a weeder.” Mr. Tokwe was born and bred on the farm: “My father was a cane worker, and his father was a cane worker.” Young people, argues Wayne, are increasingly unwilling to perform agricultural work because of the stigma associated with this sector. High levels of exploitation, long hours, low wages, poor health and safety standards, and deplorable living conditions characterize cane work. In the context of an extensive social grants system, young people prefer to stay at home.

Working conditions

The South African sugar industry boasts that it produces sugar more cheaply than 85 per cent of its global competitors. Despite the recent drop in cane production, profits continue to rise for sugar giants Illovo and Tongaat-Hulett. Yet an investigation of working conditions on sugarcane farms suggests that in the race to lower costs and maximize profits, workers end up being squeezed.

The end of apartheid promised improvements in farmworkers’ conditions. Farmworkers won the right to unionize; secured residency rights on farms if they had lived there for more than 20 years; and eventually gained a minimum wage and labor protections. Govinsamy argues that overall, conditions have improved. However, the shift from a both oppressive and paternalistic relationship between landowner and worker, to a less personal but not necessarily better-regulated arrangement, means that for some farmworkers, have actually gotten worse.

Farmworkers continue to earn extremely low wages. Despite a mandated minimum wage of R1503.90 (USD 185) a month, a 2004 report by the South African Human Rights Commission documented salaries as low as R60 (USD 8) a month for farmworkers.

Cane workers interviewed on large farms and estates earn around the minimum wage. After deductions for rent, protective gear, unemployment insurance, and cut hours, however, there is little left. “I spend R90 on rent, R 700 on food,” calculates Mr. Maranti. “And I still need to support my family. I want to buy them clothing, pay for school fees, purchase furniture, like a normal-looking person.”

According to the law, employers may not make deductions for tools, uniforms, training, utilities or grazing of livestock. However, some employers do not provide the necessary occupational health and safety equipment, explains Mr. Vizinto. To illustrate the point, Mr. Vizinto opens his hands to show the large blisters on his palms, calloused from repetitive wounds.

Those working for small growers generally earn less. Mr. Dyalivane, who works at a farm recently sold by Illovo to a small grower, earns less than R1000 a month. Rather than trying to retain workers, the farm owner draws on a revolving door of laborers recruited via long-established networks with the Eastern Cape. “He is constantly hiring and firing. Some leave, some stay, others bite the dust.”

On many cane farms, pay continues to be tied to performance. Repercussions for not meeting targets include docked pay, no pay, suspension without pay, and dismissal. This system incentivizes long working hours. Ms. Melento, who is in her 40s, is a field hand: “I work from 6:30am to 2:30pm. I don’t get teatime, I don’t get a lunch break, I work non-stop so I can meet the target. I have to bring my own water; I’m not allowed to bring a lunchbox. Weeding is hard physical labor but I have nothing to eat.”

Employers, pressured by performance targets at the mill, increase or decrease thresholds on a day-to-day basis. If workers work overtime to fulfill their target—as cane cutters often do—they are not compensated. Asked whether he ever complained on cane cutter, Mr. July said, “Yes, but what are we to do. If we say it’s too much they’ll hire someone else, cut our hours or send us home. They don’t care about the life of a black man.”

With long schedules, workers have little time for other activities—including visiting their families. Ms. Sigabi has six children, the youngest of which is five. Initially the youngest lived with her on the farm compound. When she began to demand better working conditions, the owner chased her child away, claiming that only non-union members were allowed to live with their children. Asked how she felt, Ms. Sigabi replies, “It made me feel bitter, it created a festering wound in me. I try to go home every three months, but we’re not allowed to take leave during the year.”

For most farmworkers Sunday is their only day off. At one Illovo compound there is a church-service taking place in the main hall. As clapping and singing fills the compound quarters, young men make their way to the company store next door to drink. Goods purchased at the store, are then deducted from workers’ salaries. In an attempt to curb drinking and build community among cane workers, Govinsamy has started to organize soccer matches in Dalton, “I don’t blame them [for drinking]. There’s nothing else to do. So these games are a diversion.”

Workers are entitled to sick leave under Sectoral Determination 13. Because of the target system however, many workers prefer to go to work sick than to miss a day’s pay and risk getting fired. Workers who do receive paid sick days must generally provide a medical certificate. Certificates from traditional healers are generally not accepted. Workers who are seriously ill are sent home to recover, forfeiting their wages for the season and losing their home.

Due to the isolated nature of farms, workers are dependent on employers for housing. Living conditions vary widely. Generally, large growers provide better conditions. However, this is not always the case. On one large farm, workers were forced to build their own houses from mud and stone. Mr. Dyalivane lives in a compound that formerly belonged to Illovo. When the land was sold to two emerging farmers, the compounds became their property. However the compounds have been poorly maintained. Despite the electricity lines running alongside, the rooms are not connected to the electric grid. There is no running water, no sewage and no toilet. Workers are forced to fetch water from afar, to relieve themselves in the bushes, to cook on a fire. The roof leaks; the fumes from the kerosene lamp have blackened the walls; cardboard covers the windowpanes to keep the cold winter air out.

Intolerable living conditions is one tactic farmers use to illegally evict workers. According to the Nkuzi Development Association approximately 930,000 farm workers have been evicted since 1994. Only one per cent of these evictions was reported and conducted according to proper legal procedures. The majority of those evicted had worked and lived on the land for generations; yet not only did they lose their jobs but also their homes.

Exploitation, Struggle and Negotiation

Qinisela Silangwe, FAWU’s Provincial Secretary for KwaZulu-Natal identifies a number of reasons for poor working conditions in the sugar industry. Workers have little knowledge of their rights; they perform unskilled work and are thus expendable; they rely on the farm owners not only for their job but also for housing and food. Their precarious condition makes agricultural workers—and in particular undocumented migrants who fear deportation– unwilling to take action.

However, interviews suggest that workers do try to negotiate with owners, albeit in different ways. A common negotiating tool is to walk off the job. “I used to walk from farm to farm looking for greener pastures but I decided to retire here because I realized that all farmers treat workers the same,” explains Mr. Gidi, who says that he worked as a cane cutter for so long that he no longer remembers when exactly he started. Instead, Mr. Gidi decided to cultivate a relationship with the farmer. One day after a night of drinking he tripped and hurt his arm badly. With a slight smile he says, “Now I put manure on the field. He likes me, I always worked hard. Putting manure is an easier job.”

Other workers have used more confrontational tactics. Ms. Sigabi explains, “Once the mulungu (owner or white man) said that we would have to do new tasks, but we refused, we said we’d go on strike. He called us to the hall and we avoided the strike.”

Not all workers have been able to negotiate successful working conditions however. When he was ill, Mr. July has asked repeatedly to be assigned an easier task but his employer rejected his request. “Once a cane cutter, always a cane cutter, said the owner. Whether you’re sick or well, you’re going to cut cane.”

The absence of institutions designed to advocate on behalf of the worker however is a deterrent to collective action. Currently there are only 800 labor inspectors for all workplaces in South Africa. In addition to lack of capacity, there is also a lack of co-operation between government departments. Landowners are able to act with impunity because magistrates and South African Police Service lack training in the law; there is limited access to legal assistance; and an overemphasis on litigation rather than arbitration and mediation.

Finally, unionization rates are extremely low among farmworkers. While the industrial sector–mills, refinery, and terminals– is unionized and workers represented under the Sugar Industry Bargaining Council, the much larger agricultural sector is not. FAWU organizers estimate that they represent between 2000 and 6000 agricultural workers. NASARIEU and UWASA also represent workers in the sugar industry.

Challenges to Organizing

There are a number of reasons for low unionization rates among cane workers.

Historically, there has been reluctance by labor unions to organize workers in rural areas. In his historiography of the sugar sector, Jason Hickel2 argues, “FAWU organizers often denounced rural Zulus as traditionalists’ committed to moribund cultural values that run counter to the developmentalist trajectory that underwrites the modern nation-building project” (12). Skeptical of rural workers’ ‘underdeveloped’ class-consciousness, labor unions privileged an industrial model and invested few resources in organizing agricultural workers.

Today, Silangwe argues, expanding representation to cane workers is a priority for FAWU. Chief among its goals is to extend the bargaining council that currently represents industrial workers in the sugar sector, to agricultural workers. In order for employers to agree, Silangwe adds, FAWU needs to organize at least 70 per cent of the workforce.

This is no easy feat. The isolated nature of farms means that organizing workers is both resource-intensive and difficult. Travelling to dispersed farms requires a car, petrol, and time. With one national sugar cane organizer and five local organizers covering the whole of KwaZulu-Natal, FAWU simply does not have the necessary resources. As Ali Mdluli notes, “We need to put our house in order first.” Furthermore, South Africa’s constitution guarantees privacy for farm owners. This means that union organizers have to ask for permission before going on the farm. Organizers have been threatened or short in the past. Security militias have arrested organizers talking to workers in compounds after-hours. “If I don’t get permission I will be shot dead,” explains Mdluli.

Second, unions have tended to focus on estates and large farms because workers are concentrated and unions have existing relationships with employers through the bargaining council. However, the casualization of labor through the sale of large estates to small growers and contracting out has transformed the structure of the sugar industry. Workers on small farms are in many cases unregistered and not paid through electronic deduction. This makes it difficult to collect dues as unions rely primarily on the employer for payroll deductions. In the absence of an alternative dues collection and monitoring system, unions are reluctant to organize workers because in Mdluli’s words, “It’ll turn us into debt collectors.”

The Way Forward

Despite a drop in South African sugar production, profits for Illovo and Tongaat-Hulett continue to increase, as they rapidly expand across Southern Africa. This recent expansion of South African capital is part of what Ruth Hall terms the “great trek north” of agribusiness, processing industries and consultants. Driven by the privatization of sugar estates across the continent, South African companies have been able to escape the drought, access cheaper labor and preferential EU markets.

The expansion of Illovo and Tongaat create new opportunities to organize. “The presence in several countries of a small handful of conglomerates and growing international campaigns against the impact of the retail chains on agricultural production, are a basis for more co-operation and solidarity between farm worker organizations, as well as with other mass formations of the working class,” argues Elijah Kodisang of Khanya College. Kodisang is the coordinator of the Southern Africa Farm Worker Network, a coalition of farm worker unions and support organizations working with farm worker communities in the region.

Last month striking farmworkers at the Illovo-owned Zambia Sugar won pay raises of 15 per cent for permanent workers and 12 per cent for seasonal workers. However, as Kodisang reflects, “At this point in time, these strikes are having minimal impact on organizing in South Africa, as SA unions have tended not to cooperate on a consistent basis with Southern African unions. Many of these unions belong to the same International Federations, however there is very little by way of actual solidarity amongst the unions.”

* Names have been changed to protect workers’ identities
2 Jason Hiclel: Hickel, Jason. 2012. “Subaltern Consciousness in South Africa’s Labour Movement: ‘Workerism’ in the KwaZulu-Natal Sugar Industry,” South African Historical Journal 64(3).

Ruth Castel-Branco is a researcher and activist. She has been involved in the US labor movement—as a volunteer and organizer– for ten years. She is affiliated with the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban South Africa

Leave a Reply